Earlier this semester, the Dalai Lama stopped at Middlebury College in Vermont for a speaking gig. On October 12, a few days before, a press release was sent to 2/3 of the student body, several members of the staff and administration, and over 150 local and national media outlets from the College Office of Communications—specifically, from Tim Shornak of the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee. The press release detailed Middlebury’s decision, in honor of the Dalai Lama’s visit, to divest its $883 million endowment from the war and fossil fuel industries.
The catch? Tim Shornak doesn’t exist, and there is no official Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee. Four days after the fake press release went out, the four students who had sent the email posted a letter around campus and on their blog revealing their identities and defending their actions, saying that the hoax email was meant to draw attention to the hypocrisy that Middlebury, one of the most environmentally friendly campuses in the nation, probably has money tied up in industries that destroy people and the planet.
The university’s October 17 statement does not confirm or deny that the university invests in war or fossil fuel industries, but does make clear that the administration was not amused by the students’ actions, stating that “the college is investigating this matter and whether those policies were violated in this instance, and will take disciplinary action if warranted” and that the university would continue “fostering open, well-informed discussions on this topic.”
The university ended up putting the students on a public trial—the first in over five years. The trial, held before Middlebury’s Community Judicial Board (CJB), lasted for over six hours not counting hours of deliberating, and filled Middlebury’s 272-seat auditorium, the largest space on campus. Ultimately, the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee (DLWC), was found guilty of violating the standard to communicate with honesty and integrity and the “ethical and law-abiding behavior” clause of the information services policy, but received a reprimand—the equivalent of a warning at Wesleyan—instead of substantive punishment. The conflict has divided both staff and the student body, but also has, at least for the short term, sparked both dialogue and concern about the college’s investment practices.
The students cite the Yes Men as a major influence. The Yes Men are a pair of activists who use a process that they call “identity correction” to draw attention to environmental destruction and dehumanization caused or tacitly approved by corporations and government agencies. The goal is usually to force the corporations to reconsider their stances, either due to public pressure or the necessity of issuing a press release to correct for damages. Past pranks have involved holding a press conference in which they posed as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an incredibly successful prank on Dow Chemicals (below) in which one of them posed as a spokesman for the company agreeing to clean up the pollution from the Bhopal disaster some thirty years ago. The prank was so successful that it ended up landing them a BBC interview… as, of course, Dow Chemicals.
So I mentioned in my email to you that the moratorium was over for a couple hours one day. I think it was fall of 2002, maybe a couple months after the moratorium was initially enacted. All students on campus received an email from President Bennet’s email address with an email saying that the moratorium was over and that Bennet understood the value of chalking and of freedom of expression. And then a couple of hours later it came out that the email was a hoax and that somebody had somehow hacked Bennet’s email system.
And, uh. I had to turn myself in for that one.
Like the DLWC, Matthew received little punishment for his hoax: a “a little slap on the wrist and was put on disciplinary probation until I graduated.” Unlike them, he actually did send out the email to the whole campus, and actually impersonated the president.
It’ll be interesting to see where all of this goes. Between Middlebury’s DLWC, Wesleyan’s need-blind protests, and Cooper Union’s recent occupation, it looks like student activism is definitely still alive and kicking.